what is public space? the freedom to protest

This week controversy has re-arisen over the purpose and design of the proposed 'Garden Bridge' over the Thames in London.

According to Oliver Wainwright's report in the Guardian,

“All groups of eight or more visitors would be required to contact the Garden Bridge Trust to request a formal visit to the bridge,” states Lambeth council’s planning report to its committee, which recommends conditional planning. “This policy would not only assist visitor management but also would discourage protest groups from trying to access the bridge.”
 Whether or not this gets enacted in practice is one matter, but the bigger issue is that planners think this way about what on the surface was marketed as a 'public' space open to all. And that their main reasons for limiting numbers was less 'assisting visitor management' and more about 'discouraging protest groups'.

How many people form a 'tumultuous' crowd?

The restriction on groups of eight visiting (surely a very small number - are people only allowed to have 7 friends? what if two or three sets of parents decide to walk across with their kids?) recalls the historical debates about how many people constituted a riot.

According to eighteenth-century common law, 3 were enough to cause disturbance of the peace, and the 1714/5 Riot Act stipulated 12 people as the number constituting a riotous assembly.

It also brings to mind the Seditious Meetings Acts of 1795 and 1817, which defined a (perhaps in this context) generous 50 people meeting to draw up a petition or discuss political matters without the permission of two magistrates as a seditious assembly.

The 1817 march of the Blanketeers from Manchester to London made sure to follow legal advice to stick to the post Restoration 1661 Tumultuous Petitioning act, which stated that more than 10 people presenting a petition or address to the monarch was deemed 'tumultuous'.

'City scavengers cleansing the London streets of impurities!!', 1816 (British Museum)

What is public space?

The phenomenon of 'malls without walls' is now well established and critiqued, not least by Anna Minton's book, Ground Control.

These are spaces that appear to be public, especially because they are often open-air and have the appearance of streets, with street furniture, fountains, etc. But in fact they are private spaces, designed for and by commercial and private firms, and therefore policed privately. The usual laws over public space don't apply. Hence the landowners and their managing companies (Liverpool One is often cited in this respect) control the space in a much more restrictive way than councils can do with public spaces - they can exclude 'undesirables', from Big Issue sellers to skateboarders, and in the case of the Garden Bridge, protesters.

The current campaign to save Library Walk in Manchester is a similar debate - a formerly open passageway between the two listed buildings of the central library and the town hall extension, now blocked off for commercial gain.

My new book underlines many protests in the early 19th century which similarly contested the privatisation of public space, essentially by stealth. 'Civic improvement' removed traditional meeting sites and spaces where marginalised members of society could meet. A moral cleansing of prostitutes and beggars, but also an attempt to prevent working-class groups from meeting and protesting.

Further reading:

Kathleen Kern, 'Heterotopia of the theme park street', in Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society, edited by Michiel Dehaene, Lieven De Cauter

David Mead, 'A chill through the back door? The privatised regulation of peaceful protest', Public Law (2013)


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